Friday, May 21, 2010

Interview with Trystan Swale of the Righteous Indignation Podcast

I just can't keep away from jolly old England, especially when ash clouds are threatening to strand me in a place where the locals appear to speak English but have whole different words for ordinary things like a "soccer ball", a car's "trunk", and "good weather".

I caught a last minute flight to Edinburgh (that's in Scotland, not England technically) when I heard that fine city was playing host to a re-release party for L. Ron Hubbard's iconic Space Jazz double LP. It was being released for the first time anywhere as a digitally re-mastered CD. An extra CD of bonus material was being made available to release party guests only. The bonus CD included some never before heard material that didn't make the cut like "A C Note That Plays for Three Minutes" and "Psychlos Boogie Down".

The magic of Twitter alerted me to the fact Righteous Indignation host Trystan Swale would also be in attendance. As it turns out we're both long time fans of the album and the Fairlight synthesizer on which it was composed. I tweeted Trystan that we should hook up and do an interview for Skeptical Review. Trystan ignored my tweet so then I Facebooked him. He ignored that as well. After a few whiney message board postings on his RI blog, Trystan relented. I realize now he wasn't trying to be impolite or ignore me (I thought Marsh might have warned him off). He was merely trying to hide the fact that he's not only a huge fan of Space Jazz but a fan boy of Battlefield Earth (the novel and the movie). Trystan came to the release party properly attired as Terl, the Psychol chief of security. I promised him I would not mention he came in costume so please at this point skip right ahead to the interview, which we conducted at one of the many all you can eat deep fried Mars bar buffets that have opened up in Scotland.

Righteous Indignation (RI) is pretty new on the skeptical podcasting block but you've quickly won a loyal following. I've heard more than a few people quip they like it better than Skeptics Guide to the Universe. High, high praise. If you can lay all modestly aside, what makes your podcast so pretty damn awesome?

Firstly, thanks for choosing me to interview. I'm the quiet, cantankerous one on RI that nobody cares much about. I'm not as recognisable and animated as Hayley or as amusing and sharp witted as Marsh. So thanks, I guess you're ticking an equal opportunities box for middle aged nerds.

Yes, I've heard some fantastic feedback about RI. We often seem to get mentioned in the same breath as SGU which is an honour in itself, but it is usually because the two shows so alike in many respects. We're both panel shows that discuss the news, run interviews and play a frivolous game at the end of the show. But there are also huge differences. SGU has Dr Novella who has some important looking letters after his name and wears a white coat. It discusses and makes knowledgeable comment about some pretty geeky scientific stuff. By contrast we're three grassroots skeptics who are, I guess, pretty representative of the average UK critical thinker. We don't hold any scientific qualifications of note and we're not experts in any particular field. I think we show people that you don't need to be academic to embrace skepticism. Sure, the knowledge and expertise helps, but it isn't the be all and end all. An understanding of logic helps and so does some good old fashioned common sense. I think people appreciate our layman's approach and also that we don't take ourselves too seriously. Not everyone gets the humour and it has got us into some scrapes but that's life!

There appears to be many, many British people in the UK (upwards of 70 million) but until RI came along there didn't seem to be any really good skeptical podcasts coming out of the UK. Am I wrong about that?

Sort of. I am probably very wrong myself, but as far as I am aware RI was the first independent skeptical podcast from the UK. The excellent Little Atoms had been up and running for a long while before us, but it is a radio show on Resonance FM, a London based station. Since we started RI we seem to have shown other wannabe skeptical podcasters that it isn't too difficult to take the plunge. Skeptics With A K followed us and now there are a load of other shows including Skeptic Pod, Clear Air Turbulence and The Pod Delusion. Our friends from the Greater Manchester Skeptics now have a new show, Just Skeptics, and so does Keir Liddle of Edinburgh Skeptics. What prompted you and your co-host Hayley (praise be her name) to get into podcasting?

It sounds terribly naff but I was inspired by the usual podcasting suspects: SGU, Skepticality and Conspiracy Skeptic. I noticed there was a gap in the UK for a light hearted skeptical podcast and spent a year or so toying with the idea. I was keen to find a co-host that had a lot to say and could counter balance my revolting sense of humour and inability to string a coherent sentence together. Hayley was my first choice as I always enjoyed the skeptical rants she would post on an internet forum we both frequented. I was surprised that she accepted but I think my enthusiasm won her over. It was a big step into the unknown for both of us, but hey, here we still are!

What's your favorite The Office? The BBC version or the NBC version?

I have to say the BBC version as I just can't get my head around NBC's take on The Office. The humour in both shows seems very cultural specific. Having worked in an office I can appreciate all of the characters in the British version. The American version just completely bypasses me. I dare say it's hilarious if you live in the States. Me, I just don't get it.

A few personal questions if it's okay: how old are you? Where do you live? What do you do for a living? Are you married? Do you have any mammals as pets?

These will be the Korean questions? Okay, I'm 35 and live in a town in the south west of England called Cheltenham. We like to think of ourselves in these parts as terribly cultured as we have statues, parks, a famous racecourse, literature and science festivals. However, I've only ever experienced the freebies and I live in a rather modest area of town with my wife and son. I work as an elementary teacher at a school in the wilderness, not far from the Welsh border. I have no mammalian pets as that doesn't fit with our tenancy contract. We do have some fish though and I have recently been the adopted father to a family of tadpoles.

Your co-host Hayley (praise be her name) was once a big time ghost believer/ghost hunter and eventually saw the light was of non spectral origin. But I gather you have your own conversion story? I think you confessed to me once that you were a bit of a conspiracist?

Yes, indeed. Hayley is always considered the RI host who was once a woo turned skeptic, but my story is far more pitiful. See, I love being the martyr. I was interested in all things weird and wonderful from a very early age and became obsessed with flying saucers and ghosts. They would scare me but I just accepted their cultural prominence as proof of their existence. From there I drifted into a fascination with crop circles, cryptozoology and conspiracy theories. In 2004 I became an active paranormal investigator and it proved something of an eye opener for me. I began to see that the ghosts people hunted were a product of their own ignorance, cultural stereotypes and skewed reasoning. I began to apply the doubt to conspiracies and soon learned what they all seem to have in common: selective use of facts, reliance upon anecdotal evidence, lots of fallacious reasoning and the 'I'm just asking questions card'. I'll have to beg you to allow me on Conspiracy Skeptic sometime as there are some fantastic British conspiracies that need to be shared. Pretty please.

What prompted you to add a third co-host, Michael "Marsh" Marshall? And I think you've added a fourth recently who goes by the name of … well the name escapes me at this moment. Babs or something cute. Do you remember his name?

It became quickly apparent with RI that we needed a third crew member to mix things up a little. Hayley stumbled across a story in which some bloke from Liverpool had confronted a medium called Joe Power, asking him to take the JREF $1m challenge. By good chance this street skeptic listened to RI and got in touch with us. We asked him, Marsh, to come on the show one week to share his insight. We haven't been able to get rid of him since. Not that we want to!

Gavin Schofield from Greater Manchester Skeptics has also been on the show with us for an extended time as a guest host. He's currently concentrating Just Skeptics at the moment but I'm hoping he will be back from time to time in the near future. You may have also noticed Dr T, the manic Irishman that fills an empty seat every now and again. I could tell you more about him but I'd have to kill you after.

The movie American Werewolf in London made it seem like groceries are very expensive in the UK. I found the checkout scene in that movie far more terrifying than the Nazi zombie attack dream sequence (errr spoiler alert!). Are groceries really expensive in the UK?

It depends where you shop. There seems to be a correlation between the price of the groceries and the width of the aisles. If you're on a limited income then you can happily survive on vegetables and beans from the chains that import most of their goods from continental Europe. At the other end of the scale there is Waitrose where you pay through the nose but the experience is less horrendous.

It would seem one third to one half of your interview guests are from the other side. Woo proponents as we'd say. Have these guests given you any kind of interesting perspective on the mind set of "the other side"?

I have to be honest and say no from my personal perspective. I've been on the other side of the fence and retrospectively know how the mindset often works. I can think of one exception in Patricia Putt, a British medium who failed the JREF $1m challenge. I won't be down on her as I genuinely believe she feels she has psychic ability, but I found her arguments and reasoning hugely contradictory.

One of the things I like about your woo interviews is you're always unflappably polite. Sometimes the "go for the jugular" skeptic types complain you don't spend more time pinning them to the wall. What's your take on that?

I think those people have to remember it is often tough to get proponents of controversial ideas onto a skeptical podcast. The big names amongst them have nothing to gain and some lesser lights have laid down completely unrealistic demands. Some believers really do think that skeptics are just out to humiliate them and we try to show that this isn't necessarily the case. We're not interested in making these people feel small. We're far more interested in their arguments and the evidence to support them. We've had two or three interviews where things have become a little animated but it's in the context of the debate. I can only think of one interviewee has ended up on bad terms with us and that was retrospectively when she made a fool of herself on a forum.

Another great thing about you and Hayley (praise be her name) is you just don't preach from behind a mike. You guys take your skeptical message into the pubs and basement lecture halls of the woo proponents. What kind of reception have you guys got?

I always enjoy the chance to take the skeptical message out to people who may find it challenging. I usually find the response I get to be respectful and good humoured, even if the people don't agree with me. That's the nature of debate and I have no problem with that. From what I gather Hayley's experiences have been very similar. I can only think of one really hostile audience. I did a talk on UFO conspiracies earlier in the year and some of those in attendance got quite heated. They were more interested in throwing insults and ad hominems than addressing the points I had made. Hayley was there and said she would have cried if it had happened to her. I just found it darkly amusing.

How do you arrange such talks? I can't see 9/11 Truthers in North America inviting a skeptic to give a talk about how a 757 could have indeed made a small hole in the Pentagon's outer wall or anti-vaxxers hosting a talk by a vaccination expert from the CDC. Is there something unique about the British character that allows for this more open dialog? Is it a promise of beer at the end of the night? Do you all lay it aside at the end of the day and agree Habersham United is going to womp the Dorchester All Blacks 2-0 in football?

I have never approached anyone to arrange one of these talks and I have always been invited to do it. I never question the reason but I do attend expecting the worst. Invariably, the organisers have been very pleasant and polite. Domestically I sometimes think people on both sides of the belief argument can have a polarised view of each other. Most believers in the UK are just everyday people with whom I have more similarities than differences.

I think when most skeptics in North America hear about Nick Pope (the ex British MOD worker who ran the ministry's UFO desk), there's a tendency to write him off as a kook. But you and Hayley (praise be her name) have found a bit more depth to him than what the tabloid headlines seem to lead the arm chair skeptic to conclude about Mr. Pope. Yes?

Nick has openly stated that he feels 5% of UFO cases cannot be conventionally explained, but at the same time he doesn't throw his weight behind the extra-terrestrial hypothesis. It's an interesting position and the individual can take what they like from it.

Who do you like better, Adrian Mole or Harry Potter?

Neither are a major part of my life but Adrian Mole is deeply ingrained into my childhood. He was a wonderfully naive character full of intellectual angst and I think there are many Englishmen of my generation who can recall their own Mole moments as a teenager. Despite J K Rowling being a native of the same ceremonial county as me I have to say that I don't see the fuss with Harry Potter.

Besides me, who was your favorite guest on RI?

Without a doubt it has to be Tim Matthews from our twentieth episode. He's a man with a hugely fascinating and controversial past but we approached him solely to talk about his time as a crop circle maker. He is a very funny man and I appreciated the way he confessed to winding up believers.

Any bit of woo peculiar or more peculiar to the UK than North America? Ghosts are an obvious one but the UK also seems to be taken with the notion big man-eating cats are stalking their gardens.

I think you're on the ball with your observations. Ghosts are part of the British culture and we have a folklore heritage brimming with them. Alien Big Cats? I have to say that it is almost certain that there were big cats living in the wild in the latter half of the 1970s. The government of the time introduced legislation to stop people keeping them as pets. Some were surrendered and destroyed, but others were released into the wild. I would imagine the odds on them establishing a viable breeding population was very small.

What does your wife make of all this?

She is very understanding. I work very long hours and it must be a frustration for her to have our time together sapped by constant ridicule of David Icke. Going back to Steve Novella, I expect he has a similar story to tell!

-- Karl

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